If only we could re-live those days

Author: Mrs Dora Walthew (nee King)From the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi archives. We think it was written in the 1980s

It was the year 1934 and the island sat like a bright green jewel, in the blue waters of the Hauraki Gulf – approximately 16 miles from the port of Auckland, which nestles beyond the massive bulk of Rangitoto, guardian of the harbour entrance. The island was fringed with the bright red blooms of the pohutukawa trees, growing from the cliffs edges and along the rock foreshore.

On the highest point of the island, stood the lighthouse. A 60 foot construction of steel sections, bolted together with a strong beaming light which flashed warnings to the shipping, entering either of the two passages to Auckland.

Two keepers’ homes were built on the flatter sides of the hill and another house of superior construction was built further over, close to the cliff edge. (Where the bach is today). This was the home of the head keeper. Large concrete tanks were constructed alongside each home, for the island dwellers depended on every drop of rain that fell for their water supply. With various sized implement and storage sheds and a stable to keep chaff and oats for the station horse, there was quiet a community of housing.

A large red gate connected to a seven wire fenceline, running the width of the island and another fenceline running the length. This separated the station land from the rest, which was leased to a farmer (Hobbs) on the Whangaparaoa peninsula.

Sheep and cattle were run on this land. Through the red gate, the station horse named John, pulled the grey konaki every Thursday fortnight on his way to the wharf, about a mile and half distance. Slipping and sliding with an empty slepdge on the way down and heaving and pulling the heavy load back up the hills.

This was boat day and a holiday for all, except the man on duty. The island population would proceed to the wharf to extend a welcome to all on board. Sometimes, visitors would climb the hills to visit the lighthouse and the launch would stay for about three to four hours. They would enjoy the hospitality of the wives, who usually made a batch of scones and offered a welcome cup of tea. Often, lasting friendships came from these visits. If the house cows were producing well, the visitors went from with a jap of real, thick country cream and memories of a really great day – and a little envious of the island dwellers.

For the families, it was the excitement of unpacking the stores and putting everything away in the big storeroom which each house had. Sometimes, Messrs J. Jones sent a packet of sweets for the children and this was a rare treat.

This was the day the family had fresh meat for tea, as there were no refrigerators. All other meats had to be put down in brine. All the family shared with the unpacking and putting away the goods. Tinned meats and fish. Large sacks of flour and sugar. Dried fruits, cereals, dried peas, rice, barley, tea and coffee. Seven pound tins of treacle and golden syrup, flour and half a pound tines of biscuits.

A large side of bacon which was hung from the pantry ceiling, from which slices were cut off as required. A paste of flour and water was then placed over the cut to keep it fresh.

When the task of putting away the stores was done, the next task was the undoing of the school envelopes, to see just how many mistakes one had in their set. Also, to read the remarks from the teachers in Wellington. The families were taught by their mothers and made good progress with their schooling.

This day, three of the five children belonging to the third keeping (Alfred King), swung on the red gate. The time was fast approaching when they would leave their beloved island. They felt sad, but with the natural resilience of children, soon began making plans for the future.

The eldest boy (Alf), spoke first and said he wanted to fly a plane and become an engineer. He was a grey-eyed, fair boy with a quick mind and natural bent for anything mechanical or electrical. He was their leader and the two children adored him. They followed him like well drilled soldiers.

The next boy spoke (Reg). He was a dark haired and happy natured child. He was going to America and wanted to dance with Deanna Durbin who sang so beautifully.

The third member of the party was a fair headed, skinny girl (Dora), who could have passed for a boy with her close cropped hair.

This day she was clad in her brother’s navy shorts and grey shirt. She wished fervently to become a boy. If only God  would transform her, she would be so happy. She bitterly resented being born female. She loved to be outside with the fowls, calves and cows and adored all forms of nature. But, indoor chores were hated – especially dishes – whenever it was time to dry them, Mother Nature called and when she returned, they were all thankfully done and put away. In repair, her mother gave up trying to make her ladylike and she ran wild with the two elder boys. She was delegated to milk the cows and clean the fowl house. These jobs she did with joy, as to her, the animals and birds were real people. She seemed to have an affinity with all nature and determined to fiercely independent.

Left photo: Chamberlain and King family. Taken between 1946-1980Right photo: King family and Nancy Davies c1928

Only three years separated these children and they were not only close with blood ties but with a deep bond of affection and loyalty for each other. They would not hesitate to lie to protect each other from a whipping.

Their father, an ex naval man, was a strict disciplinarian and with his quick temper, never listened to explanations or excuses, so it did not pay to tell the truth, as one still got chastised.

They were strong willed too and although they listening to his lectures on the dangers of cliff climbing and the sea, the advice was forgotten as soon as they were out of ear-shot.

No cliff was too steep to attempt to climb, in spite of the dangerous rocks below and the terror of falling. On more than one occasion, they had taken the twelve foot dinghy from the boat-shed, pushing it along the wharf and lowering it by crane to the sea below and rowing out to the reef where the gulls nested. It was wonderful to hold the tiny grey and white spotted chicks, with the angry parents dive-bombing above their heads. On these occasions, they were never caught, mainly because the boat-shed and reef were not in sight of the station.

None were more skilled at stealing provisions from mother’s larder – dried apricots, packets of lushus jellies, jars of pickles and jams and biscuits – also slices of cheese. These were carefully hidden in their clothing and secreted away to their hut at the end of the island. (They were sure mother knew, but she never complained about the loss – and in later years told them she felt they had had enough whippings).

What great adventures these three had there, with their imagination running wild and not a soul to disturb them and their fantasies. They became expert at collecting fat mussels when the tide was low and also rising the oysters from the rocks, which they cooked on the beach. The swimming nude in the rock pools and catching fat shrimps. Another favourite past-time was beach-combing and many wonderful treasures were collected. Sometimes plates from passing steamers, found their way ashore and these were carefully placed on the rocky shelves in the driftwood hut.

Occasionally, father’s garden in the gully was raided and fresh young carrots and white turnips were taken out to the hut, to eat with the cooked mussels. These were dished up on treasured plates. Every inch of the island was known to them and it was great thrill to find the glass balls, which came ashore from the fishing trawlers.

Small pockets of bush grew in the gullies and many varieties of birds lived there. They loved holding a stick out for the friendly black fantail to sit on. Hours were spent decorating the fresh cow-pats with yellow and white daisies and dock seeds, making intricate patterns.

The boys had jobs to do too. Cutting kindling wood and ti-tree for the big kitchen range and the hated job (usually done on a wet day), of emptying the toilet tin over the cliff edge. They would put a stout stick through the handle and clad in grain-sack hoods, the sack corners turned in – they proceeded like monks down the paddock, carrying the offending matter to the edge of the cliff.

In the evenings, the copper would be boiled and baths taken in the big, wooden wash-tubs. One child in each tub, with the warmth from the copper making the wash-house so cosy, then across the yard, into the house for tea. Later, into the front room where the wonders of good books could be enjoyed.

Their parents did not spare themselves to buy good, wholesome reading books. Stores of distance lands and people and travel books. The National Geographic books were avidly read again and again and a wealth of knowledge was gained and remembered.

With the fresh air and fresh caught fish and the vegetables, their bodies and minds were healthy and their energy and imagination boundless.

Fifty years later, a man and a women by the red gate. A brother and sister – the eldest brother had long since passed away, after flying an aeroplane and becoming a precision engineer. They look up at the lighthouse with tears in their eyes, as their thoughts nostalgically go back through the years.

The man speaks first, with an Amercian accent. “You know sis, coming back to our island home after 50 years, has been the highlight of my trip back to New Zealand. What a wonderful childhood we had. If only we could re-live those days. Its sad our brother is not with us. You know, I did dance with Deanna Durbin too.”

“Yes,” said his sister. “Both of you boys got your wish – I did not get mine – if only.”

Left photo: John with Konake Mr Davis and Mr KingRight photo: King family c1920

To find out more about Tiritiri Matangi history why not buy Tiritiri Matangi: A Model in Conservation by Anne Rimmer

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